Kate Atkinson does this thing that I love, it's a thing director Alexander Payne ("The Descendants" "Sideways" "About Schmidt") and my favorite girl, Jane Austen, do that I just eat up. These artists excel at creating anti-heroes, be it Atkinson's Jackson Brodie, Payne's Miles (though lion's share of credit should go to writer Rex Pickett for Sideways), or Austen's Elizabeth and Darcy, who aren't afraid to mock their own bad luck and bad moods. There is always a steady stream of wit and irony coursing through the narrative that keeps grim circumstance from becoming maudlin.
Of course, a deeply-flawed protagonist in crime fiction - whether she be a private dick or he a DI - is par for the course. What makes Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series so compelling is the author's brilliant prose. She takes the rote scenario - a tossed-about, lonely, erudite investigator solving mysteries more through happenstantial coincidence than skill - and injects it with unexpected but delicious detail in syntax that delights. It's like being told grilled cheese is for lunch and being presented with just-melted burrata, fresh tomato and basil on grilled pagnotta. Comfort food with panache.
Started Early, Took My Dog - Atkinson's fourth featuring former solider and policeman Jackson Brodie - offers far more in the satisfying character department than handsome, lovelorn, brooding Brodie. I will fully own my sucker's heart for The Ambassador, Jackson's foil who doesn't object to being trundled about in a large sack. Senile actresses, slimeball cops, meth-ed out prozzies are vivid and compelling fodder. We are introduced to mall security guard Tracy Waterhouse, she of size extra-large slacks and size extra-large heart. I hope like hell we see more of brave and hilarious Tracy. She is more than Jackson's match in ironical survival. And her small but fierce appendage will break your heart a hundred times over:
"Courtney, on the other hand, had made more of an effort, dressing herself from a selection of yesterday's new clothes. Some of them were on backwards but she had got the general idea right. Tracy's efforts at hairdressing the previous evening weren't entirely successful. In the cruel light of day the kid looked handmade. She had finished her cereal and was staring, Oliver Twist-like, at the empty bowl."
I did feel a twinge of annoyance at the messy nature of Jackson's personal relationships; he is too easily cowed by the women he has loved and with whom there is a history of mutual neglect. Jackson has a hard time moving on, but Atkinson uses these relationships as a plot device to give her characters context and to ground them in the present.
As important of features as wit and irony play in Atkinson's narrative, they do not overshadow the intelligence and humanity that run deeply through her stories. Perhaps more than the three novels that preceded it, Started Early... challenges the moral centers of its characters and readers. They and we are compelled to question the rights of parents vs. the welfare of children, the nature of identity and family, and the true victims of drug dependency and prostitution.
The crimes and misdemeanors at the heart of Started Early... stand alone for those uninitiated to Ms. Atkinson's Jackson Brodie oeuvre. But do yourself a favor, partake of the whole rich banquet.
And how could I not love this story, when its title was inspired by Emily. Dickinson, that is:
I started Early – Took my Dog – (656)
BY EMILY DICKINSON I started Early – Took my Dog – And visited the Sea – The Mermaids in the Basement Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor Extended Hempen Hands – Presuming Me to be a Mouse – Aground – opon the Sands –
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide Went past my simple Shoe – And past my Apron – and my Belt And past my Boddice – too –
And made as He would eat me up – As wholly as a Dew Opon a Dandelion's Sleeve – And then – I started – too –
And He – He followed – close behind – I felt His Silver Heel Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes Would overflow with Pearl –
Until We met the Solid Town – No One He seemed to know – And bowing – with a Mighty look – At me – The Sea withdrew –
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)